US Congress passes huge defence bill despite partisan divisions

Nearly $770bn bill to make key changes to how military handles sexual assault cases and includes funds for new war memorial

The US Senate passed a $768.2 billion defence bill that includes a pay rise for service members and lays the groundwork for a new war memorial. AFP

The US Congress sent President Joe Biden a $768.2 billion defence bill that makes major changes to the way the military handles sexual assaults, keeps women out of the draft and lays the groundwork for a new war memorial on Washington's National Mall.

The annual bill, which has passed both the House and Senate every year for decades without fail, nevertheless was delayed in the Senate by various disputes, including a separate effort to halt goods produced by reported forced Uighur labour in China from entering the US.

The legislation includes a 2.7 per cent pay rise for both military servicemembers and the civilian Defence Department workforce, and authorises $75.3 million for the operation of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. It also authorises $9.9bn for defence needs outside the bill’s traditional jurisdiction, bringing the overall price tag to $777bn.

The new war memorial would honour those who served in the Global War on Terrorism, launched in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.

The Democratic chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed and James Inhofe, issued a joint statement praising the passage, a rare moment of comity in the divided Congress.

“This bill sends a clear message to our allies — that the US remains a reliable, credible partner — and to our adversaries — that the US military is prepared and fully able to defend our interests around the world,” Mr Inhofe said.

Mr Reed said the nation faces “an enormous range of security challenges and it is more important than ever that we provide our military men and women with the support they need to keep Americans safe".

Efforts to change the military’s prosecution of rape and other kinds of sexual assault have been building for years, alongside the rise in reported cases, including a 13 per cent jump in 2018 and a 3 per cent increase in 2019, Defence Department records show.

Under the revisions spelt out in the defence bill, the military will take some authority for prosecuting sexual assault cases out of the hands of commanders and instead use independent prosecutors.

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This bill sends a clear message to our allies — that the US remains a reliable, credible partner — and to our adversaries — that the US military is prepared and fully able to defend our interests around the world
James Inhofe, US senator

Senators from both parties have described the wide-ranging challenges facing the nation, including the troubling withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and continued competition with China, as well as the need to shore up alliances around the globe.

Additional funds were authorised for a Ukraine security initiative, said senators Rob Portman and Jeanne Shaheen. They said at least $75m would be available for lethal assistance as the Ukrainian government faces Russian aggression.

The final product also scrapped a provision to have women register for the draft, which was opposed by many conservative Republicans.

Mr Inhofe noted that the legislation also “prevents service members from being dishonourably discharged for refusing the coronavirus vaccine — in the nick of time, too,” he said, referring to the first discharges this week.

Updated: December 16th 2021, 10:20 PM